Concerns about the risk of the Israel-Hamas war mushrooming into a wider Middle East conflict rose on Sunday with the U.S. sending more military assets to the region as Israel pummelled Gaza overnight and hit Hamas supporters in Lebanon and Syria.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said 266 Palestinians, including 117 children, had been killed by Israeli air strikes in the past 24 hours in the enclave, to which Israel laid “total siege” after a deadly mass infiltration into Israel by Hamas gunmen on Oct. 7.
In neighbouring Syria – where Hamas’s main regional backer Iran has a military presence – Israeli missiles hit Damascus and Aleppo international airports early on Sunday, putting both out of service and killing two workers, Syrian state media said.
Along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hezbollah has skirmished increasingly with Israeli forces in support of Hamas, the Israeli military said it struck several Hezbollah targets overnight, including what it called a compound from which a missile had been fired at one of its drones.
In later incidents, Israeli forces struck three groups of fighters who launched or were preparing to launch anti-armour missiles across the border, the military said, adding that it also shot down a drone approaching from within Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister that the Lebanese population would be affected if his country were drawn into the Israel-Hamas war, the State Department said.
With violence around its heavily guarded borders increasing, Israel on Sunday added 14 communities close to Lebanon and Syria to its evacuation plan in the north of the country.
Israel began unrelenting air strikes on Gaza to its southwest after Hamas militants breached the border and carried out a shock rampage through nearby communities, killing 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and taking 212 hostages back to Gaza.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Sunday that Israel’s air and missile strikes in retaliation had killed at least 4,651 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, with more than a million of the tiny territory’s 2.3 million people displaced.
U.S. BEEFING UP MILITARY PRESENCE
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington would send more military assets to the Middle East in support of Israel and strengthen the U.S. defence posture in the region following “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces” – a reference to Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist militants.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and additional Patriot air defence missile system battalions will be sent to the region and more troops put on standby, Austin said.
Washington has already deployed a significant amount of naval power to the Middle East in recent weeks, including two aircraft carriers, their support ships and about 2,000 Marines.
Drones and rockets targeted two military bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq last week, the latest in a series of attacks after Iraqi militants warned Washington against intervening to support Israel against Hamas in Gaza.
Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the fenced border around Gaza for a planned ground invasion aiming to annihilate Hamas, after several inconclusive wars dating to its seizure of power there in 2007, after Israel ended a 38-year occupation.
“We are going to go into the Gaza Strip… to destroy Hamas operatives and Hamas infrastructure,” Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told troops on Saturday.
Elaborating on Israel’s strategy in remarks to Fox TV, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said it was “to have a weakened, tired and dislocated Hamas in preparation for our next stage of military operations.
“Our working assumption,” he said, “is that Hamas has prepared the battlefield, that there are various dimensions of warfare ready for us – specifically tunnels – and that Hamas, at least in the first and the intermediate stages, will fight and will inflict heavy casualties on (Israeli forces).”
Hamas’ armed wing said it had fired more rockets at Tel Aviv on Sunday. There was no immediate word of damage or casualties.
With Israel keeping up daily bombings that have devastated swathes of the densely populated enclave, Palestinians said they received renewed Israeli military warnings to move from Gaza’s north to the south to avoid the deadliest theatre of the war.
They said military leaflets dropped on the territory, just 45 km (28 miles) long, contained the added warning that they could be identified as sympathisers with a “terrorist organisation” if they stayed put.
“For your own safety, move southward. We will continue to attack in the area of Gaza City and increase attacks,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said most of the dead from air strikes over the past 24 hours were in Gaza’s south. Israel says it is only targeting militants and that they often use residential buildings as cover.
‘THE SITUATION IS TRAGIC’
Deprived of electricity and water under Israeli siege, Gazans in the southern town of Khan Younis said they were struggling to feed their children, forming long queues to get bread made scarcer by power blackouts and a lack of flour.
“We are suffering extremely, waiting since dawn to get bread. If this continues for two more days it will be catastrophic,” said Saleh Skafi, a father of four from north Gaza now sheltering in Khan Younis.
“The children here are starving. The situation is tragic.”
The first humanitarian aid convoy allowed into Gaza since war erupted arrived through its southern Rafah border crossing from Egypt on Saturday. The United Nations said the 20-truck convoy brought life-saving medical supplies and some food.
U.S. President Joe Biden hailed the arrival of the aid after days of intense negotiations and said Washington was committed to more negotiations to ensure more aid gets to Gazans.
But the U.N. humanitarian office said the volume of goods that entered was just 4% of the daily average of imports into Gaza before the hostilities and a fraction of what was needed with the enclave running out of food, water, medicines and fuel.
Moreover, Israel has refused to allow in fuel as part of aid shipments for fear it could end up in Hamas’ hands. Gaza and international health officials say the lack of fuel is leaving many hospitals unable to treat mounting casualties from the war.